Ari Aster’s Masterpiece of Folk Horror
Hell is other people. Especially in Sweden. Ari Aster’s dread-drenched Midsommar, a masterpiece of folk horror, proves that the scariest monsters don’t need to lurk in the shadows. How can they, in the land of the midnight sun?
MIDSOMMAR ★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
Directed by: Ari Aster
Written by: Ari Aster
Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Will Poulter
Running time: 140 min
“Skål!” says an elder, toasting the start of a nine-day midsummer festival that occurs once every 90 years in the remote Scandinavian village of Horga. Native son Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), studying abroad in the U.S., has returned home with some fellow anthropology students curious about his cultural traditions. “An authentic hippie midsommar at his yodeling farm,” they joke. They just want to knock up some Swedish milkmaids.
Only hitch: Christian (Jack Reynor) broke the Bro Code by inviting his drag of a girlfriend, Ativan-popping Dani (Florence Pugh). She’s grappling with a traumatic personal tragedy. He doesn’t have the spine to break off their long-term, long-decaying relationship. But Pelle is almost too happy to welcome her along. And the others, scholarly Josh (William Jackson Harper) and wiseass Mark (Will Poulter) reluctantly shrug it off to focus on the impending rituals.
Once in Sweden, they supplement their jetlag with local psychedelic mushrooms, trek deep into the woods, and arrive at Pelle’s ancestral home. And that’s when things get weird, during what one person calls the hottest and brightest summer they’ve ever had.
The flower-festooned, white-linen-wearing villagers eat outdoors on a long, eccentrically geometric table shaped like a rune. Cryptic illustrations ringed with ancient script form the elaborate murals inside their barn-like communal living quarters. Pelle explains that the framed photos on one wall are of the annual May Queen, crowned each year after winning a dance competition. And then there’s the caged bear. “Are we just going to ignore the bear?” someone asks. Apparently so. For now.
Dani is our guide through Midsommar. Her emotional maturation, psychological rehabilitation, and spiritual awakening give the film its prismatic power. On a basic level, Midsommar is a breakup movie. But on a deeper, primal, visceral level, It’s a cultural rupture.
Here, lovemaking is a group-monitored feminist exercise in coerced intercourse, where this time the roofie goes to a man. It might even involve an enchanted baked good. “I think I ate one of her public hairs,” says a stunned suitor. “Sounds probably right,” says a wise woman.
Everywhere the bleached light touches seems to be endowed with special meaning. “You pissed on our ancestral tree!” screams an upset man when Mark sneaks off for a leak in the woods. “You’re pissing on our people!” Actions have consequences.
A skewed structure contains a library of what they call “emotional sheet music.” The yellow triangular building is off-limits. And that man keeps walking around with a giant mallet. “Spirits! Back to the devil,” someone commands. There’s passing reference to “The Black One,” but this film doesn’t need demons. The demons are us.
The best horror movies speak to their sociopolitical times, and Midsommar is no exception. Just as Rosemary’s Baby brilliantly amplified the prenatal anxiety of a pre-abortion-rights America, Midsommar illuminates our current tribal urges. There’s a seduction underneath all the off-kilter menace. Cults persist because people yearn to be part of something bigger than themselves, no matter what the cost. They want direction and validation, even if it means renouncing core beliefs. They want to belong.
“I have always felt held,” says Pelle. “By a family. A real family. Which everyone deserves.” The tight-knit community of Holga has shielded itself from the outside world for seemingly hundreds of years. They have an entrenched value system that gives meaning to their lives. More importantly, they’ve been reared into the clan. They’re not disillusioned outcasts, or jaded runaways, or damaged souls. They’re born and bred. And they’re happy. Even blissful.
Midsommar is a waking nightmare that’s also brimming with an exquisite sense of the dreamlike. It’s the most vividly gorgeous descent into madness you’ll ever see, lush with a botanic purity that belies the gnarled humanity underneath. This is a village where incestual offspring are considered “unclouded,” and downing spiked iced tea is a way to open yourself up to “the influence.”
Crossbreed all the pastoral mythology with a toxic love story and you’ll get romantic comeuppance bar none. There’s even a moment where screams of broken-hearted terror transmogrify into an ad-hoc EST session. Know that everything ends with a big smile. Just watch where you piss.